About women writing through bodies

    by Gurpreet Kaur

    “Akhila is sitting on a bench by the sea. She will sit here till the streetlights come on and then she will walk back to the hotel, she decides. A short distance away, between her and the sea, is a young man leaning against his motorbike…A little later Akhila sees him leave. She smiles. She has never known such power before.” (Ladies coupe, Anita Nair, p.269)

    The years of growing up were spent in finding ways to belong and belonging in life. As I began reading about women in women’s writing, there emerged longing(s). Often-times there was a longing for the sea, for travelling to the sea, for the winds, waves, and for its expanse. There have been encounters with desire and a pain in the in-articulation of what this desiring meant. As a confused young person, melancholy was often a constant companion and reading about Akhila travelling alone to the seas exposed oneself to possibilities in life. 

    I began reading women’s writing especially from the Indian subcontinent at the age of around 15, from Anita Nair’s story of ‘Akhila’. It wasn’t a canonical beginning nor a classic, one could say. It wasn’t mystery, romance, or poetry. However, it was about life in the everyday, a woman’s life in her everyday. This everyday also meant encountering a domestic, intimate, desire that carried many possibilities. It allowed for a building and attaching oneself to relatable, resonating narratives for life. 

    In retrospect, I often feel it may be quite a late start getting introduced to women’s writing in India. There was little mentoring or exposure in my initial years, on art, books, music, things that would make one think, absorb, feel, express. I was growing up in a household which belonged to the post-partition generation and was witness to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, in Delhi. They had seen and lived with a trauma of loss and grief; therefore, finding stability through getting an education and finding work were always most crucial. There was little space for art, music or writing and a life was mostly lived with the mundane-ness and chronicity of an ache and anguish that often remained covered. For me, therefore, as a product of this inter-generational post-partition trauma, growing up listening to stories of a lost home and lost families, the loss was always felt closely, deeply. It was a pain that needed an articulation. Therefore, stories of an everyday, with desire and possibilities always remained a window of an imagined life. A life that would be able to carry space for expression, and hope of intimacies in relationships. Through these stories, I was not only making sense of a loss but also finding meanings of freedom that were going to be a negotiated struggle in the life to come. 

    My exposure to women’s writing and art happened very much on my own and often by chance encounters, accidents or perhaps luck. Whether such encounters happened through chancing upon a tattered Kamala Markandaya book ‘Nectar in a Sieve’ lying somewhere around in the house, from my mother’s borrowed collection, or finding an Anita Desai, a Manju Kapur, or a book/story on ‘blasphemy’, or short stories by Ambai (C.S. Lakshmi), in the school library. In these years of my life, I would just find corners to get lost in these stories of lives of women, which were mostly about struggles, restraints, inhibitions, but also aspirations and hopes. They were also about emotional landscapes that were layered and complex, giving a language to the loneliness that one encountered way too often. It was also these stories, these writers, that engaged with the familiarity of loneliness, which resided in the body, somehow keeping the boat afloat. 

    Akhila’s train journey on her own is a reminder of an exploration and a quest for self. Her encounter with other women, with her desires, longings, and with intimate fantasies, opens up an inner world that doesn’t feel too far from oneself. The walks that Lahiri writes about in discovering her ‘Whereabouts’ or the walk that Akhila makes at the sea in Kanyakumari, have been inscribed on the body as memories, written as journeys to be (re)discovered. In reading these moments of melancholic solitude and struggles of living an independent life, there was also an affect(ive) registering of bodies of women. My body was also accumulating these stories or finding an articulation of one’s own, through the emotional labor of self-discovery writing expressing itself amidst burdens and structures of societal roles and relationships. 

    Anita Nair’s writing provided a space to think about many emotions, feelings, their complexities, contributing in shaping ideas of self, choices, home. ‘Ladies coupe’ is about the intimate stories that women share with each other on a train journey. It is this intimate shared space that held contemplations on questions of being ‘good women’, good daughters, mothers, wives as well as that of desires, struggles, and aspirational joys. The sharing of the struggles, their lives interweaved with Akhila’s, how they met and unmet in this journey of travelling together in an all ladies’ railway compartment, opened up scenes for dreaming future journeys. At the same time, Akhila’s own thoughts of being single, without necessarily being dependent on a man and yet carrying desires for love and lust, has found resonations of what intimacy of desires could feel like. 

    For Ambai too, journeys were significant in her writing, “a life threaded together by journeys” (Fish in a dwindling lake, Ambai, p.95). The journey was not just of a quest alone but also of moving forward and traveling along with one-self, with friends, with finding meanings. These stories about journeys have allowed for a sense of proximate closeness with self. It made me reflective of my journey in life and the journeys that I wanted to make as a woman. It was important for me to hold on to these stories as secret escapades of my imagination. These stories have allowed me to embark on my own sojourns time and again and seek the explorations and meanings of self. Perhaps it has also been this ethos of the writing by women authors that made me reflect, ask questions, through struggling, laboring, trying-to-be-good, dreaming bodies of women. This also, I feel were moments my early leanings on feminist ways of thinking and politics, got embedded. 

    When I was reading Anita Nair, it was a time as a young person, I was also exploring my sexuality. I was trying to understand if my attraction to other women was okay to feel. I trudged along with a lonely self, and kind of still do, in those years, struggling with these thoughts and feelings. It wasn’t something that was accessible to me in language or emotions. The body was felt more through shame, disgust and despise. Not being the popular, attractive, fair, sought-out-by-boys’ person, these feelings of being attracted to women also remained like deep dark secrets that didn’t see the shore. Reading through Akhila’s story of reaching her desires and fulfilling them, allowed me to see my body with desires, needs, fantasies. I could acknowledge the touch of the body with its bones, skin, flesh; with its form, shape, texture; with its darkness and fatness.  

    In a similar register, Ambai’s stories of journeys, female friendships, bodies in labor, made me feel accepted in the body I was inhabiting beyond shame alone. It opened up the complexity of desiring another body that was close and similar to mine. Reading through the lives that Ambai created, were also initial moments when life was being made sense of in an em-bodied sense. What was it to feel, emote, labor, love, desire, want, relate in embodied ways? And how vulnerability, struggle, labor were not meanings of fragility or incompleteness. 

    “The body was the only truth she knew. It was the body alone that was left, even when she went beyond the body… “the body is indeed an anchorage. But each body casts anchor in a different sea. Everything external- trees and plants, creepers, forests, beasts—all of it is body. Only the body. Without the body, there is nothing. Everything is through the body. You can keep on stretching the boundaries and limits of the body. It will accept everything, contain everything. It will be able to mingle with everything””. (Fish in a dwindling lake, Ambai, p.112). Ambai’s contemplation on the materiality of the body, allowed for a movement, a flow, with an abundance and range of possibilities. It wasn’t just shame and a fear of violation that needed to be associated with a body of younger self, but it could also allow for possibilities to be written all over. As one gathered the experiences around labor, desire, touch, reading these writings early on also meant that something got deposited, within as well as on the body. 

    Ambai (2003), elsewhere, also contemplates on the body inhabiting space(s) that is not just the physical space, but the space that is often the ground of struggle for women and women writers, the space that is silenced, the space of the body that is shamed and “ashamed to exist and exist fully”, the space that needs to be reclaimed. Meeting these thoughts, over the years has meant growing into, finding avenues for attempting to reclaim body, space(s), self. 

    I haven’t visited Anita Nair since the time I read it as a young person, however I have carried this memory of warmth all along. A memory that holds the intimacy of a woman exploring her desires, a memory of travelling alone and meeting the sea, a memory of meeting other women and finding oneself in their stories. I never thought at that age when I read it for the first time, that this memory would carry so much weight. In retrospect, these memories of reading about women’s lives through women writers, have walked along, as desires, as reflections, as pieces of imaginations of journeys that I have slowly made in life and those that I also aspire to make. I am reminded here, of Derrida’s invocation of the ‘psychic’ in memory, something that is as if coded in the orality of language and history and can be understood even if people writing are not present. In a way, this helps me to think about how memory also is organized and how women’s writings invoke memories that carry and transfer psychic ways of desire and desiring, perhaps. In other words, the relationship of women’s writing and memory is also how it inscribes itself on the body, on the psychic. 

    Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak also shares the idea of ‘critical intimacy’ about the intimate reality that one inhabits. One deconstructs only that which one inhabits intimately, “it speaks to you, you speak to it” (Spivak, 1993:60 in Kapoor, 2004:640). In that sense then, making sense of intimacy(ies) enables for a much deeper, embodied way of inhabiting, processing and absorbing the reality. Being with these women writers then, have also opened up ways we relate to the world and of be-ing in the world, in intimate ways. 

    Feminist literature on women’s writing has been significant in underlining what and how they are written, how they talk about structures of power through the everyday lives, chores, travels, intimacies. 

    Women Writing in India represents a critical moment that requires us to strain against many earlier formations, but also one, we hope, that makes significant initial moves in developing an aesthetic that does not lessen discontinuity, dispossession, or marginality but dramatizes and clarifies it. It is an aesthetic that must undo the strict distinctions between the literary and the social text, abdicate the imperious functions it has been charged with over the last century and a half, and redesign itself to orchestrate contradictions and cherish the agonistic forms of insurgency and resistance. The promise it holds out is that of a critical practice that is by no means restricted to literature—or to the academy—but, in Gayatri Spivak’s phrasing, fills the “literary form with its connections to what is being read: history, political economy— the world.” (Tharu & Lalita (ed.), 1993: 39). 

    I bring in the feminist literature to talk about the influence of the women writers mentioned in this piece. In the encounters with these writers, and lives of women, I was feeling, touching, bringing closer home the struggles for freedom. A life lived with a myriad set of contradictions, restrictions, reprimands every day. At the same time connections made with a body which finds little space in the structural reality but what does it mean to accept it materially and in an embodied sense. The complexities and the presence of such stories offered an honest and earnest sense of living life as a woman in South Asia. Of accepting and sharing a sense of loss, grief and placing the landscape of life in a complex, political, personal reality. Of reminding oneself of the ethos of writing and reflecting on the everyday. In all this, one has also kept alive the caution and awareness of essentialising, of who becomes and gets written off as a ‘woman’ and what does it mean to understand woman in the experience and affect across a spectrum. 

    This piece may have to find an end, but endings are also openings and beginnings of other journeys carrying reminiscences and traces of the past.

    As I wait for the ‘when’ to arrive…

    When I will be able to have my own space, when I will be able to go to the sea, when I will be able to travel, an Akhila comes and shares a story of desire for her ex-lover, of a dream that she creates to live through her travels. An Ismat comes talks about her life, tells me about her survival because of her abrasiveness, sarcasm and of having lived a difficult yet fearless life while being called an ‘Incomplete woman’. A Pragya talks through her misophonia, her creative struggles and dreams as a woman; of her uncertainties, sadness, melancholy, her pains to feel stuck and un-stuck in a love that she is not able to let go, even in letting it go. With the intimate friendship between Kumud and Bimla of finding ‘fish in a dwindling lake’, waiting for the rains to come, I learn of sharing a life through the body’s certainty as well as body’s acceptance of everything. With Lahiri I walk, in and with her solitude, finding people in her whereabouts, getting to know them, her lovers, her city, her neighborhood, a mother, and through them finding her and perhaps myself in these whereabouts.   

    I stride with them, these stories, their lives, the struggles, and relationships intimate or something else. These touch in a texture that feels dream-like, a dream carrying the promise of home, love, hope, wander, abandon. 

    a musafir (wanderer) finding a way…


    Nair, A. (2001). Ladies Coupe. A Novel in parts. Penguin books 

    Ambai. (2003). Two Novellas and a story. Translated by T Indra, Prema Seetharam, Uma Narayanan. Katha.  

    Ambai. (2012). Fish in the dwindling Lake. Translated by Lakshmi Holstrom. Penguin books. 

    Lahiri, J. (2021). Whereabouts. Penguin Random House. India 

    Chughtai, I. (2012). A life in Words: Memoirs. Translated by M. Asaduddin. Penguin books. 

    Bhagat, P. (2022). Swimming in our oceans. Zubaan

    Chanda, G.S. (2008). Indian Women in the House of Fiction. Zubaan Academic.  

    Tharu, S. & Lalita, K. (eds.). (1993). Women Writing in India: 600 B.C to the Present; Volume 2: The Twentieth Century. New York: Feminist Press. 

    Kapoor, I. (2004). Hyper-Self-Reflexive Development? Spivak on Representing the Third World ‘Other’. Third World Quarterly, 25(4): 627-647.  

    Spivak, G. C. (1993). Outside In The Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge.


    Author’s Bio:

    Gurpreet Kaur is a researcher, writer, and a learner with art. She likes to do research in the feminist process way, write with a slow, poetic love, and read like the trees and mountains are reading with her. She has worked closely with feminist methodologies within communities in different settings and holds interest in feminist pedagogies and politics, and of writing through affect, and narratives on body and queer-ness. She aspires to make art, do research and write in creative, reflective and accessible ways. She is found in different spaces, mountains, city or the sea, looking for home, creating a home.

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